Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 22, 2015
John 12:20-33 Commentary
Comments and Observations
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” With all due apologies to the many pastors out there who need to be addressed as “Ma’am” and not “Sir,” those of us who preach in various churches have seen those words—lifted up out of John 12:21—emblazoned on many pulpits, often on a small brass plate visible to the preacher alone. (The first time I saw this on a pulpit when I was a seminarian, I somewhat cheekily wondered in my mind if I should go and take a seat in the front pew seeing as the congregation was clearly expecting someone else to show up!)
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” It was some Greeks who first said this line. Probably they said it in Greek, too, which is why they approached a disciple who had a Greek name and who had grown up in a town, Bethsaida, that had a mixed population of Jews and Greeks. Maybe these seekers didn’t speak Aramaic and so needed to find the one disciple they knew could interpret for them. It is not clear whether these Greek-speaking people were Jewish converts or Gentiles who had come to Jerusalem to take in the Passover sights and sounds. But whoever they were, they had heard of Jesus and wanted a formal introduction.
That hardly made them unique at that precise moment, however. Jesus was rumored to have recently raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. The man had been moldering in a tomb for four days already when this rabbi from Nazareth reportedly called him out of that grave. Indeed, John's gospel presents the New Testament’s single most understated account of the Triumphal Entry. John has abridged and streamlined this story, leaving out most of what you can find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This entry was an important event to be sure, but in John the recent raising of Lazarus looms much larger, including for these Greek strangers. They simply must see the man who could do what Jesus recently did.
So they make their request to Philip, who in turn pulls his brother Andrew into the action as well. The two of them then go to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, do you have a minute? Some Greek tourists want your autograph or something.”
But it is just here where the story makes an odd turn.
There is no indication that Jesus paid much attention to Philip or Andrew; no indication he ever meets the very people who first said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Indeed, there is a quirky irony that in verse 21 there is a request to see Jesus and yet in verse 36 (just beyond where this lection technically ends), we are told that Jesus hid himself from those Greeks and everyone else–indeed, in John’s gospel Jesus will not appear in public again until he does so nailed to a cross.
Why would Jesus hide? Why would he duck away from some earnest seekers? Because Jesus’ “hour” had come. The time to see him had come and gone. Now it was time for him to be “hidden” in death, which is just what Jesus goes on to say. “My heart is troubled.” And then he says that it’s time to die, time to go the way of a kernel of wheat so that greater fruitfulness could be generated.
Well, the crowds didn’t like this one bit (and neither did the disciples, as subsequent chapters in John will make abundantly clear). “Hold up there a sec,” they all shout in verse 34, “we’ve always been taught that when Messiah showed up, he’d remain with us forever. So what’s all this talk about death and departures? Do you want to be the Christ or don’t you? Because if you do, you’d best start playing along with our political dreams, Jesus!”
In reply Jesus says something about light and darkness, something I’m sure not one person in ten understood. And no sooner does Jesus, the Light of the world, say this, and he hides himself. So far as we know, the Greeks who asked to see Jesus never did. It’s another one of those delicious ironies.
But suppose a few days later those same Greeks passed by that scarecrow figure impaled on a spit of wood at Skull Hill. Jesus couldn’t hide himself from anyone that day. He was on public display, literally nailed down at last. Conversely, however, Jesus could not go to anyone himself, either. You had to come to him that day if you wanted to see him. The question is: would anyone bother, would anyone dare, could anyone stomach the sight? “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus predicted in verse 32. Just in case we were tempted to think that this “lifting up” meant the glory of Easter or the Ascension or something, John inserts his own voice into the text once again in verse 33 to remind us that it was his raw and hideous death Jesus was referring to there.
Jesus would draw all people to himself on that cross, but would anyone come? Would anyone let themselves be drawn, or would they hide their faces, turn aside, run away, look for someone else who appeared to be going somewhere worth following? “Sir, we would see Jesus” the Greeks said to Philip. In a way, everything Jesus said in verses 23-36 was an extended answer to that request, as though Jesus were saying to these Greeks, “It’s OK that you want to see me, but wait a few days. I invite you to come and see me Friday afternoon. You won’t be able to miss me. You’ll know me when you see me. I’ll be the suffering and dying one. But I hope you’ll come by to see me anyway.”
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.” Actually, literally translated, this says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone.” It remains monos, solo, alone, a mono-seed. “But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” A single kernel of wheat all by itself is lonely but also ineffective. When I used to do farm work while growing up, sometimes I’d grab a jacket that maybe I’d not worn in a while and sometimes when I put my hands in the pockets, I’d find a kernel of wheat or corn. It had fallen in there unbeknownst to me in the course of my work. And it could have stayed in that pocket forever but it would have been alone and unproductive. It could do no good there.
One way or another, for a kernel of wheat to do any good, it has to die. Either it gets sunk into a harrowed trench of soil and buried so it can then sprout and grow or it gets threshed and ground into flour with which to make bread. Either way, a mono-kernel off by itself will do no good. It has to die, Jesus says, if new life is to be produced.
In John 12 we know Jesus is referring primarily to himself. Paradoxically and against every messianic anticipation, he was going to have to sink deep into death if he was ever going to give life to anyone. But lest we think this is only about Jesus, our Lord also makes clear that this is to be our pattern too. There is a line in John 12:26 that we often hear quoted in quite sunny ways: “Where I am, my servant will also be.” Typically we hear this quoted at funerals and so these words convey the idea that the deceased person is now in glory with the Lord Jesus. And although that may be a legitimate extension of John 12, I think the real meaning here is that if Jesus is the seed that dies in the soil of this earth, then if we are to be servant followers of Jesus, that is where we must go as well.
“When I am lifted up,” Jesus goes on to say, “I will draw all people to myself.” And just in case you are tempted to interpret this up-lifted status to mean something glitzy, John sticks in a little commentary in verse 33 to make clear that the “lifting up” Jesus had in mind was the cross. Ultimately Jesus would get lifted up in the ascension into heaven, but the first ten feet of the ascension came by way of a cross. Jesus’ upward journey started when the Roman soldiers hoisted him up skyward at the Place of the Skull.
So if you want to fly off into glory with Jesus, you’ve got to be part of the first ten feet of the trip as well. You can’t prop up a stepladder on the side of the cross, climb it, and then meet Jesus at the top for the balance of the journey to glory. You’ve got to be crucified with him. You have to be the kernel who gets buried into death with him. “Where I am, my servant will also be.” But as a servant, it is not up to you to pick and choose the times and places you want to be with Jesus. You are with him always and everywhere or you are with him never and nowhere.
Unless a kernel of wheat falls, falls down, gets buried into the earth and dies, it’s lonely and alone. But if it dies, it may well produce a great cloud of witnesses, a host of life, a cornucopia of good kingdom fruit. Whether or not the world cares for the kind of fruit that emerges from the servant pattern of dying and rising with Christ, Jesus assures us that this is fruit that lasts forever.
As Richard Burridge helpfully points out in the Eerdmans The Lectionary Commentary (2001), John employs a bit of a double-entendre here in John 12 even as he did in last week’s Gospel lection from John 3. The Greek verb hypsoun means both “exalted” and (more literally) “lifted up.” The typical image you would get from a verse like John 12:32 of someone being lifted up in exaltation would be like what you often see at a baseball game after a pitcher throws the final pitch in what proves to be a no-hitter game. His teammates swarm the pitcher’s mound, lift the jubilant man to their collective shoulders, and so exalt his achievement as they carry him off the field. Jesus, of course, has a rather different idea as to what kind of “lifting up” will lead to his exaltation (and it is by no means what you would at first expect!).
According to an old adage, the brave man tastes death but once whereas the coward tastes death many times before he finally dies. In the movie Saving Private Ryan we see this proverbial dynamic at work. Most of the soldiers in that story are stout of heart. They have passed through many harrowing battles but without regret because they know they conducted themselves well. Although some of these brave men die before the story is finished, nevertheless up until that final fatal moment, they had not experienced the kind of psychological death that is exhibited over and over by the character of Corporal Upham.
Upham was a translator in a safe clerical position before getting swept up into the real war. But this young, naive, and innocent corporal was unprepared for combat and so regularly froze up in terror. In one of the film’s most excruciating scenes, Upham is seen cowering on a staircase, paralyzed by fear, even as he listens to the death cries of one of his comrades who is being slowly killed by a German soldier at the top of the stairs. His cowardice prevents Upham from saving his friend’s life. After the man is dead, the German who killed him casually walks past Upham on the steps. Upham is such a pathetic figure that the enemy just leaves him alone. In the gut-wrenching sobs that Upham then heaves forth, you sense that in a real way this man is dying on the inside. The brave man tastes death just once, the coward dies again and again.
That’s how we usually think in this world. So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in John 12 that indicate that not only does death produce life, followers of Jesus will lead lives of self-denial and perpetual death in their Christ-like efforts to bring more life to the world, too? The gospel so often goes in different directions from the rest of the world. Do we preachers always remember this, though? Perhaps it is the brave person who faces death every day for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the Gospel.
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